Interview: Steve Vogel, Author Of 'Through The Perilous Fight' Francis Scott Key wrote the words to the ballad after witnessing the Battle for Baltimore in 1814. According to author Steve Vogel, after it was published, Key's composition took the country by storm. But it didn't become the national anthem until more than 100 years later.
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For 'Star-Spangled Banner,' A Long Road From Song To Anthem

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For 'Star-Spangled Banner,' A Long Road From Song To Anthem

For 'Star-Spangled Banner,' A Long Road From Song To Anthem

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All over the country tonight, fireworks will light up the sky, their smokey shadows barely fading before another burst of color appears. Ooos, ahhs will be heard against the booms, and in many places, there will also be a soundtrack of patriotic songs.


GREENE: That play list would not be complete without the "Star Spangled Banner." And on this Fourth of July, we're going to discover the story behind our national anthem. Our guide is Steve Vogel. The Washington Post correspondent is the author of a new book called "Through the Perilous Fight." It details the end of the War of 1812. Steve, thanks for coming in.

STEVE VOGEL: Glad to be here.

GREENE: So, we should say it was the War of 1812, but it was actually in September of 1814 that Francis Scott Key actually saw the inspiration for this poem that became a song. Remind us what was happening.

VOGEL: Right, well, the War of 1812 was a terrible name for a war that lasted...

GREENE: Little misleading.

VOGEL: ...yeah, close to three years, exactly. And the Americans were trying to cope with a large British force that had been sent into the Chesapeake. And in August of 1814, they had captured the capital of the United States.

GREENE: Burned the White House.

VOGEL: Burned the White House.

GREENE: (unintelligible) see those powerful images.

VOGEL: Yeah. The capital, every symbol of America had been torched.

GREENE: September 1814, the Battle of Baltimore. Francis Scott Key is there to witness it. Tell me who he is and where was he.

VOGEL: Yeah, we sometimes think that he was beamed down from outer space and happened to witness...

GREENE: Yeah. How was he in the right place at the right time?

VOGEL: Yeah, he's an interesting figure. He was a Washington attorney, at this time he's 34 years old. He ironically is a big opponent of the war, like many Americans. He felt that it was ludicrous for the United States to take on Great Britain, which at the time was one of the most powerful nations on earth. The United States had a very small military, had done very little to prepare for war, and he had problems with the basic American strategy, which consisted of invading Canada, which was then a collection of British colonies.

GREENE: OK. So, he's a war critic. How does he end up in the thick of it in the Battle of Baltimore?

VOGEL: As an attorney, he's very capable and a good negotiator. And the British had taken an American doctor as a prisoner on their way out of Washington. And he was asked to launch a rescue mission to negotiate his freedom. And he sails out to the British fleet. The British agreed to release the doctor but, they said, you're not going anywhere. You all have to be detained now because you know too much. We're on our way to Baltimore.

GREENE: So, they kept Key and this prisoner, I mean, saying you'll be released. We're going to hold you on this ship during this battle because you know too much about what we're up to.

VOGEL: Exactly.

GREENE: So, what does Francis Scott Key witness by the dawn's early light as morning rises over Fort McHenry?

VOGEL: He had seen, before it got dark, he had been able to see the American flag flying over the ramparts at Fort McHenry. It was a very reassuring sight, because as long as that flag was up there, the fort had not surrendered.

GREENE: What exactly was a rampart?

VOGEL: At Fort McHenry they have this grassy knoll that protected the fort, essentially an earthen defense from a lot of the concussion of the bombs. And during the night, he sees and hears this tremendous bombardment as the British launched hundreds of bombs at the fort plus hundreds of rockets. Then a little bit before dawn, everything goes silent. And it wasn't 'til the sun came up, and it was a very misty morning, that they were able to see some flag hanging limply over the ramparts at the fort, and they couldn't make out whether it was British or American. And finally, a little breeze kicked up and they were able to see the stars and stripes. And for Key, it was a very emotional moment.

GREENE: An emotional moment that he went on to want to capture, in what is now a pretty famous poem.

VOGEL: Right. And he begins scribbling the lines almost immediately as he sees the British start to withdraw. That first verse that we sing at baseball games and everywhere else - it's critical to remember that he's asking one long question. And he's asking more than whether just the flag is flying over this fort; he's really asking whether the American republic is going to survive, 'cause that's what he and a lot of other people believed was at stake that night. And his words painted an image for the country at a time when the nation was really shaken by the fall of Washington. His description of the flag still flying at the fort was an image sort of like the Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima during World War II.

GREENE: But it doesn't become the national anthem for this country, officially, until 1931. And the song kind of takes a bumpy road. You know, there were some other songs that have actually been considered to be the national anthem, and I thought it would be fun to play them and see what you can tell us about them. One was "Hail Columbia."


GREENE: Why was this song pretty much dismissed as a potential national anthem?

VOGEL: It was a very popular song and, you know, all Americans knew it. But later on, by the time the Civil War comes along, it was considered a bit dull. And "Star Spangled Banner" seemed to resonate more, particularly with Union troops who were marching and defending the American flag at a time when it was under fire during the Civil War at Fort Sumter and other places.

GREENE: "Yankee Doodle," another option that was sort of considered loosely a national anthem.


GREENE: What was wrong with this?

VOGEL: You know, everybody loves "Yankee Doodle" but it was considered a bit frivolous. And the "Star Spangled Banner" marched along with the flag as a song that more Americans felt captured the spirit of the country, with a sense of what had been at stake in the American wars where the flag had been fought for.

GREENE: So, Steve Vogel, it's 1931 under President Hoover when the "Star Spangled Banner" becomes our national anthem. We're between World War I and World War II. I mean, why was this the moment?

VOGEL: You know, people had been fighting for years to make it the national anthem. There had been a number of bills introduced for the previous 20 years, but there had always been a lot of opposition to this song, for a number of reasons, you know. People thought it was too warlike, which is ironic since Francis Scott Key was this war critic.

GREENE: War critic.

VOGEL: People thought it was a drinking song, which it technically was. Not like, "What Do You Do with a Drunken Sailor?" type of drinking song, but it had been written for this gentleman's club in London at the time of the American Revolution.

GREENE: The tune that the words are put to.

VOGEL: The tune, exactly.

GREENE: Written by someone who was British, which probably was another reason for complaint.

VOGEL: Right. There were all these complaints about, you know, why do we have an English tune as our national anthem. And one of the great anthem scholars, Oscar Sonic, pointed out about a century ago that we took the air and transplanted it to American soil where it has thrived.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Ladies and gentlemen, please rise for our national anthem.

GREENE: Steve Vogel, thanks for coming in to talk to us about this.

VOGEL: It's my pleasure.

GREENE: His new book is called "Through the Perilous Fight."


RUBEN GUEVARA: (Singing) Oh, say, can you see, by the dawn's early light, what so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?

GREENE: This is NPR News.

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